Thursday, 7 July 2011

Preparing for an age of scarcity

The New Consumers: preparing for an age of scarcity by John Fisher begins with a warning from George Santayana, "those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it".

Its central thesis is that our 'dominant social paradigm' in which "growth of any kind, in any section of our culture, is a social norm and probably a good thing" is fragile, on the verge of collapse. This is due mainly, but not exclusively it is argued, to the impending end of fossil fuels on which our societies have been so dependent. This may "bring about a rather sudden social paradigm shift which may be too compressed for our society to cope with without serious social consequences".

The fault for this is 'inherent in the system' which "encourages only individual solutions to collective problems". This is nowhere better illustrated than in Chapter 1 of the book called 'The Way We Live' an account of the lives of fictitious suburban middle class couple Philip and Amy Thornton as they go about their daily business with their children: working, eating, shopping, resting at home, pursuing leisure activties, etc. Although the Thorntons live in North America, their situation is not too distant from much of the UK.

This daily routine paves the way for the chapters that follow on Food, Shelter, Transportation and Energy. The rising cost of food has its root in global oil prices, but what cannot also be ignored is the extent to which prime farmland in North America has been concreted over for more lucrative commercial and residential use. Imports are often cheaper, and of course prime parts of African and Asian farmland are used to feed not themselves or even the West but to grow cut flowers, coffee, tea and tobacco. It quotes then environment minister Ben Bradshaw MP in a highly underpublicised speech, when he said that our "food production does just as much environmental damage as private transport and housing".

Community supported agriculture is positively promoted, alongside an exposure of the tactics of the marketing executives for their deceptive labeling and the politicians who permit such lax regulation - and the author should know as a former high-flyer in Canada's equivalent of Madison Avenue, exposed in his prior book The Plot to Make you Buy.

The housing chapter, 'Shelter' is begins with a fascinating history of the origins of North American suburbia, neatly summed up in the song Little Boxes. Like our food production and the prices we pay, this suburbia (far more widespread in, but not exclusive to, North America) is dependent on cheap fossil fuels - which provides a useful segue to the next chapter: Transportation.

Again, the reader is eased in with the absorbing battle for city transport - and how the automobile industry fought a dirty war against the public mass transit systems that existed in many North American cities: the streetcars and trolley systems. The behaviour of National City Lines in 1930s, 40s and 50s is not to dissimilar to that of Stagecoach in the UK (which has recently purchased Coach Canada) since the 1980s when bus services were deregulated under the Thatcher government. The public investment in interstate highways contrasted with the disinterest shown to rail systems - and they have largely withered in North America, leaving whole communities vulnerable should the private automobile become out of reach.

The quest for a solution to the car, takes the author and reader through a intrepid search for an alternative: the electric car, hybrids, hydrogen power, and railways, before contemplating the future for air transport.

The final chapter on energy looks at the oil industry: its relationship in particular with US governments, its dubious claims on new oil field finds, and the increasing lengths and ever more complex methodologies needed to exhume the dwindling supplies. The author quite rightly wonders "how we could all be so self-deluded as we pour billions of dollars, pounds and euros, into trying to recreate the very economic circumstances which got us into this mess". The answer of course is that alluded to in the introduction - the dominant social paradigm that mitigates against collective solutions.

For all the dynamic creativity of capitalism is the contradiction - it leads to monopoly power, the removal of democracy over key questions of our lives and the resources they depend upon.

How we get to this post-capitalist, post-oil dependent world is by no means clear, "the future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination".

There are no out-of-the-box solutions to this crisis. Those of us who fear the prospects for our societies if the "compressed changes" referred to are forced upon us need to start building and promoting alternative solutions now. If socialists and environmentalists fail, then the space will be vacated for the sort of neo-fascist movements like the Tea Party in the US: nationalistic, violent and angry.

*Declaration: the author of The New Consumers, John Fisher, is also my uncle.

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